Bobsled Tracks Gravitate Toward Plastic Ice

Lubricated plastic offers a cost-effective replacement for ice tracks.

2-man bobsled team in action (ABC News)

2-man bobsled team in action (ABC News)

Bobsled is a fun-filled, fast-paced sport that has been around since the 1900s. Despite this extensive history, the sport is not followed by a lot of people – save the hardcore fans – mainly because of one indispensable ingredient – ice! The need for ice has confined the sport to the winter in cold regions… until now! With the use of lubricated ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene tracks, this limitation is set to give way.

Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene is a low-wear, low friction plastic that mimics the properties of ice when lightly lubricated by a mist of water. Although this polymer has been previously used in the bottom layers of racing skis, never has it been used on the top surface of any ice-related sports track. However, a recent study has revealed that when this polymer is lightly lubricated by a water mist, it can in fact, produce the “ice effect” required for ice-based sports such as bobsled.

When lubricated, the polymer almost completely replicates the friction level created on ice by the bobsled’s steel runners. Also, it possesses unique properties that allows it to “heal” quickly as the sleds pass over it.

From the initial testing phases, which featured a 1.2-mile-long plastic track, the speed levels recorded were very similar to that observed on ice tracks – with sleds attaining over 62 mph in just one-third of a mile. The plastic track also showed no sign of deterioration even after withstanding 1000 bobsled runs, making it an ideal replacement for ice tracks in future bobsled competitions.

The first obvious advantage of this technology is that it will make bobsled competitions possible at any time of the year and even in warm regions of the world! This, potentially, should increase the popularity and followership of the sport. More importantly, the plastic tracks will reduce environmental impact and offer a cost-effective solution for bobsled track construction, as it costs just around $4-$5 million, thus, saving over $95 million incurred on ice tracks

This research was carried out over a period of 3 years by Jan-Anders Mansson, a professor of materials engineering and chemical engineering at Purdue University and Josh Dustin, senior software application engineer. The implementation of their findings is expected to premiere at the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Switzerland.

Check out how engineering impacts the Olympics with this overview of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games!